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Worthwhile journey

'Bus 174' not only chronicles a real-life bus hijacking, it examines the societal currents leading to the crime.

October 24, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

It was not major news in this country when a Rio de Janeiro city bus was hijacked by a lone gunman on July 12, 2000, but in Brazil the resulting multi-hour standoff got the highest TV ratings of the year. An exceptional Brazilian documentary, "Bus 174," provides both a gripping recap of the situation and a disturbing examination of the reality that led to it.

Stymied by a fleeing bus driver while attempting a simple robbery, Sandro do Nascimento impulsively ended up holding the vehicle's 11 passengers hostage. Because the Rio police neglected to secure the perimeter against TV crews and because the bus had enormous glass windows on all sides, this terrifying situation was visible and broadcast live.

Director Jose Padilha, a Rio native, was one of the millions transfixed by the unfolding situation, and the first thing he did when he began to work on this film was look at the more than 24 hours of raw video the different networks had recorded. It is remarkable footage, a very different order of material than the "Survivor" stuff we're used to, the kind of reality TV we prefer not to watch.

Unwilling to look but unable to turn away, we see Sandro, his face sometimes visible, sometimes hidden by a towel, walking up and down the bus, a gun always at one of the hostage's heads, screaming imprecations at the police and the whole watching world.

"I'm gonna shoot, I'm gonna do her first," he yells, following that with "check this out, I'm gonna blow her head off" and "there's blood on my mind, lots of blood." At one point he orders a hostage to write a message in lipstick on the front window: "He is going to kill us all at 6 p.m." It's then that the real dream begins.

"Bus 174," however, doesn't only rebroadcast that unsettling footage. What Padilha has in mind is something more ambitious and even unexpected. He uses the bus incident as a lens to explore major currents in Brazilian life, as a method to examine the different ways modern urban society has failed its citizens. What results is a thoughtful, analytical yet still emotional film, meticulously investigated and absolutely compelling

Padilha intercuts scenes of the hijacking with interviews with a wide selection of involved parties. He talks to some of the hijack victims, to a masked street criminal, to members of the city's elite SWAT team, to social workers, sociologists, family members. What concerns him are the societal forces that came together to cause Bus 174, how a tragedy no one wanted ended up happening.

We learn the sad specifics of Sandro's life, how his mother was murdered in front of him when he was 6, how a turn in reform school left him more criminal than when he went in. We see the hellhole prisons he spent time in, hear about the infamous Candelaria massacre he survived, listen to a former street kid explain "when we grow up, we're enraged. I think I'll never know happiness."

The culture of homeless, underage, amoral criminals that Sandro came from has been the subject of Brazilian fiction films like "Pixote" and the recent "City of God." The reality behind the stories is just as bleak, and it is especially unsettling to hear a sociologist explain why the combination of massive TV coverage and the classic street kids' "battle against invisibility and hunger for recognition" is especially incendiary.

Sandro, the sociologist explains, felt empowered by the TV coverage, and began acting especially violently because the cameras made him feel powerful. In other words, "he recovered his visibility, he redefined the social narrative," and seeing himself as someone important became, tragically, as necessary a goal as staying alive.

What makes "Bus 174" so involving is its equal concern for the pressures and problems of the police. The film reveals that though the SWAT team was well-respected, the rest of the Rio force was not.

Poorly paid, untrained, lacking in esprit, they were in many ways the same kinds of people as the criminals they are set up to oppose.

It is this kind of rigorous even-handedness, an ability to tell this story without special pleading for any of its participants, that makes "Bus 174" memorable. Those who don't understand history are condemned to repeat it, and that's as true on our city's streets as it is on the international stage.

*

'Bus 174'

*

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Graphic and explicit violent kidnapping footage

Released by THINKfilm. Director Jose Padilha. Producers Jose Padilha, Marcos Prado. Cinematographers Cezar Moraes, Marcelo Guru. Editor Felipe Lacerda. Music Joao Nabuca, Sacha Amback. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.

Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.

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